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What Is a Scottish Pipe Band?

By S. Reynolds
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Scottish pipe band is a group of musicians who play the Scottish bagpipes along with bass and snare drummers, usually in a marching procession. Most Scottish pipe bands consist of several bagpipers, some side drummers, and bass and tenor drummers. The person leading the procession usually is called the drum major or pipe major. Pipe bands commonly perform during parades, funerals, military processions, and Scottish Highland Games festivals.

Pipe bands may vary in size from just 10 players to as many as 45 musicians playing at once. Bagpipers have a long tradition in the Scottish culture. The history of the pipe band is steeped in military tradition, and it continues to play an important, musical role in the military to this day.

The pipers are the most important element of this type of band, as they develop the harmony and melody of the song. Side drummers playing snare drums provide the rhythm, and tenor and bass drummers maintain a loud, steady beat for the rest of the band.

Scottish pipe bands require all of the pipers to play in unison, but the drone pipes may play only occasionally to lend a deeper tone. Generally, two thirds of the pipers play the melody, and one third is responsible for the harmony. Modern pipe band arrangements sometimes use a counter melody, which closely merges the melody and harmony together.

The drummers in a Scottish pipe band are also important. The drums traditionally are made from knitted Kevlar, which provides a lot of tension and a crisp, loud noise. Drummers are expected to play complicated rhythms in time with the bagpipers. Usually, a lead drummer creates the general beat and the section is expected to follow in response.

Finally, the bass section of the Scottish pipe band must support the entire band with a steady, even rhythm. It can also add some dynamic beats or pulses to add interest to the arrangement. Tenor drummers are a modern addition to these types of bands. Not only do they play the drums, but they also usually entertain the crowd by swinging their drumsticks in unison.

Scottish pipe band competitions are a popular pastime in many countries. During the spring to early autumn, bands from all over the world come together to compete, usually at Highland Games festivals. The highest prize is the "World Champion." Pipers must perform several sets, most of which are chosen by the judges. Grades usually are administered in eight categories, with "Grade One" being the best and "Novice Juvenile" being the lowest.

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